Humor Sickness: What Makes Comedians Tick?

Announcing your innermost insecurities and self-aggrandizing fantasies in public would generally be considered a strong indicator of mental illness – but when you add a mic and a drink minimum, we call it comedy.

Conventional wisdom (admittedly the least cool kind of wisdom) holds that many comedians exhibit a similar and curious mix of maladjusted personality traits: the narcissism and egocentrism that allow a person to stand in front of an audience and share their thoughts, coupled with the seemingly-opposed neuroses and self-loathing that makes those thoughts hilarious. Google “(Your Favorite Comedian’s Name)” + “narcissist” or “(Your Favorite Comedian’s Name)” + “self-loathing” and you will most likely see these accusations in action. If nothing else, this armchair diagnosis has been lobbed at enough standups (by critics, by hecklers, by door-slamming exes, and often by the comedians themselves) to warrant further investigation. Without this stereotype of emotionally troubled comics, would we have the WTF with Marc Maron, or Louie, or any of Maria Bamford’s amazing work? If comics don’t have a special streak of crazy, then what was Dr. Katz about? It seems that this strange combination of self-obsession and self-hatred has launched thousands of hilarious people off of their therapists’ couches and up on stage. But is it pathological? Are comedians their very own sickness?

Gaby Dunn, a comedian based in Los Angeles, notes that she finds herself experiencing these seemingly opposed highs and lows in her own life. She admits that her self-esteem is “Sometimes way too high. Sometimes super low.” Dunn says, “I can somehow be both super vain and super self-hating. I tend to think comedians have one or the other and that extremes in each case help comedians succeed. I might be more successful if I had a bit more of one or the other.”

Is this comedian’s sickness something a person is born with or something learned after years of open mics? According to Dr. Gil Greengross, a professor at the University of New Mexico who has reported extensively on the inner workings of comics on his Psychology Today blog Humor Sapiens, it is impossible to say for certain if this tendency is in-born. However, he notes that while comedians do not report unusual parental treatment compared to other people, many report using humor in adolescence in a way that is significant – they’re more likely to make jokes as a defense mechanism. Dr. Greengross posits that this could be a result of childhood teasing or an inherent quality. But of course, not all kids who are bullied rely on self-deprecation to get through it.

Dr. Greengross says that when it comes to neuroticism – seemingly a hallmark of the scene and the work of luminaries like Woody Allen, Larry David and Richard Lewis – comedians he studied actually scored relatively normally compared other performers. Because comics perform their own work and rarely the work of others, he argues that they need to have relatively high emotional stability. This emotional stability is also necessary for the day-to-day work of booking your own shows and getting from gig to gig.

I asked Dr. Greengross if he thought that the relatively low neuroticism score for comedians could be attributed to another personality trait – perhaps one that mirrors neuroses without its crippling effects – and he offered perfectionism as an alternative. Dr. Greengross pointed out that a truly hilarious joke might require incredible fine-tuning and reworking. While this might seem like a fixation, it can also be the totally unscientific science of comedy. While a neurotic would never stop messing with their words, a comedian knows when he or she has found that perfect rhythm. The comedians I spoke to confirmed this constant tweaking. But a perfectionist, or a comedian, is something like a neurotic who knows when to stop. Dr. Greengross says, “We think of these people as neurotic – Seinfeld, Woody Allen – but it’s hard to make jump from [what they do on] stage to their real life.”

Ari Shaffir, a New York comic and host of the podcast Skeptic Tank, corroborates that you can’t always assume things about a comedian’s personal life from their set. When he was first starting out, his comedy had little to do with his real life. “I wasn’t that honest for a while, I just said what I thought was supposed to be the case. Most new comics are doing impressions of comedians, but it felt like that’s what you’re supposed to do. You always want to say you’re broke, you can’t get laid – you’re embarrassed to say the whole truth.” So while a comedian might actually have a lucrative day job and a sexually adventurous partner, you’re unlikely to hear about it at The Comedy Store.

Shaffir rightfully blanches at the idea that all comedians could all fit into one diagnosis. “All the same?” he asks, “What are you talking about?” He attributes some of the stereotypes about self-loathing comics to insecure newcomers. “A lot of new comics do jokes about not being able to get laid, or how the only people who can get laid are jerks, so I should be a jerk, and it’s really because everyone who starts is 24 and not confident. So it’s not that comics aren’t confident, it’s that those people aren’t confident.”

Indeed, according to Dr. Greengross, the average comic is quite confident. Dr. Greengross did not study this narcissism. He concedes that comics “might well be more narcissistic,” but he shies away from the clinical term, saying that in his studies, the trait that set comedians apart from the funniest guy in your office is self-assurance. He notes that while comedians are often introverted and self-effacing, they have to have a certain level of self-esteem. According to Dr. Greengross, successful and amateur comics are extremely similar psychologically. Confidence doesn’t come from having a good set, or a thousand good sets, or, a successful franchise of movies where you dress up as various members of your own family. It’s there when you climb the first step to that first stage.

Alex Grubard, a Philly based comic who has been doing standup for nine years, admits that there is a cultural conception that comics are in some way unwell. “When somebody says, ‘I just started doing standup,’ I’ll just be like, ‘What happened?’” he jokes. Grubard agrees that, “there’s certainly a perception of comedians having low self-esteem,” but echoes Dr. Greengross that this is not the reality. When asked about his own self-esteem and the self-esteem of his peers, he reports that overall, its “pretty normal, with a few exceptions like you would in any kind of crowd.” However, he says, “Comedians are very self-aware.  So when they’re depressed or have high self-esteem, they’re way more aware of it. And they broadcast it.”

It seems that the broadcasting could be where this reputation for being self-loathing comes from. Comedians might feel the same feelings of defeat or insecurity that other people feel sometimes, but they say it – loudly and memorably and to strangers. But then the question remains: why tell everyone?

To this point, Grubard paraphrases Steve Martin, saying, “Standup comedy is the ego’s last stand.” He elaborates, “you’re not painting, you’re not an athlete, you’re not building anything, you’re talking. You’re taking an idea in your head and you’re making everyone agree with it, because they laugh. Even if they don’t actually agree with it, they understand the premise and the perspective that you have on this subject.”

So during a successful set, a comedian is receiving recognition. Not necessarily fame or fortune, but simple human recognition; that moment when everyone’s laughter says, “Yes, you’re right, I get you.” The egos making that stand are angling for that moment, and neither getting it nor being rejected will affect the desire to recreate that moment again and again.

But what about when it doesn’t go well? Why keep going up? Grubard tells me, “You don’t become a different person [after a bad set], you don’t become a person that doesn’t want to get on stage more. I’ve seen comics that I almost feel like have never done well – I haven’t seen every one of their sets, but they bomb a lot – and they still go at it.” Dunn agrees, saying that the thing that keeps her going up after a bad set is “the insane hope that the jokes will work in another location, or with another crowd.” This persistence may well be the most pathological – and necessary – trait that comics share.

It seems in the end that these traits that can be so hindering in everyday, can provide the drive for a regular old funny person to crack up a crowd of admirers. Can a person make himself or herself get up, as it were, without being narcissistic? Can they want to talk about themselves without being egocentric? Sure. But it may be harder to keep going up without the self-assurance that your perspective is necessary, or to turn constantly inward without a little extra self-obsession. Can a person be funny without being self-loathing, or write the perfect joke without being a touch neurotic (or a perfectionist)? It’s certainly possible, but those slightly skewed views are often more compelling and those finely tuned punchlines funnier. In the end, it’s confidence, the healthy middle ground between narcissism and self-loathing, and persistence, a trait that defies both neurosis and the long held perception of comics as slackers, which seem to unite comedians. How unexpected, how surprising, how funny.

Meredith Haggerty is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.

Humor Sickness: What Makes Comedians Tick?